In case anyone is wondering what archivists actually do when they say they’re processing collections and writing finding aids, here’s me doing it. And making stupid faces because I like doing that, too.
When you get a collection to process that’s been in the archives for a while, it generally comes in an acid-free box. Oftentimes there will be subfolders within the box. When a new collection comes in, you often just get stacks of paper thrown into a random box and have to make the folders yourself and rehouse fragile materials and documents in acid-free folders and boxes before getting started (including removing staples and paper clips in some cases). In this case, I’m processing a collection that’s been here for a while, so it’s already in folders.
The next step is going through each folder to determine exactly what’s in the collection. This helps you choose information to put into the finding aid. I usually take very extensive notes during this step because I take very extensive notes on everything ever, but whatever helps you remember what’s in each folder is fine.
Once you know what’s in all your folders, you can move on to working on making the collection accessible for researchers. The collection I’m currently working on in these photos is a bit disjointed, so right now I’m rehousing some of the individual pieces into folders that make more sense for them to be in. You usually don’t do this unless you have to - there’s something called original order that means that you try to keep things in the order the creator of the collection had them in - but sometimes things are rearranged slightly for researchers, especially if there appears to be no significance to the order the documents are in.
Now it’s time to put together our finding aid. To do that, we use a form document so all our finding aids are consistent. We put in all the metadata information - gross, I know - and then fill out container and box lists. Those work like this:
- Series: A subdivision of a collection that is self-contained (not physically as some series are really long)
- Box: Sometimes collections physically come in more than one box, so list the box number
- Folder: Each folder in a series gets a number so that the files stay organized
- Notes, encompassing dates, etc.
So as you can see, there’s a reason I take all those notes when I’m going through the collection - when I add something to the ‘notes’ section, it’s usually about anything important in the folder so that a researcher can find it with a keyword search when the finding aid goes online!
And that is what an archivist is doing when they tell you they’re processing a collection or writing a finding aid.